All posts by Chelsea Schmitt

Q&A: Mace v. Staff

Mace v.s. staff, both unarmoured, both have equal level of training/skill (Western-style, so just focused on their own weapon): who wins? (The mace-wielder primarily has experience fighting armoured opponents, but has fought unarmoured ones plenty of times before; the staff-wielder has almost exclusively fought the latter)


This isn’t a question, and most of the additions in this question are ultimately pointless. Primary weapon advantages are decided by distance, or a concept called reach. Weapons aren’t universal or all made equal, the staff is much longer than the mace with more available attack patterns and defensive options. However, the big one is the weapon’s reach. This means the weapon can hit you before you get into range to hit them. The mace is meant to be wielded together with a shield, and against an armored opponent or an unarmed one. The staff will beat out a sword, and will strike at distances from which a sword wielder cannot retaliate.

This isn’t a training problem, a staff wielder with significantly less experience can beat an experienced fighter using a mace. The mace is meant to crack open plate, or get around Catholic restrictions regarding priests causing individuals to bleed. That’s it’s purpose. It is a highly specialized weapon. A staff will parlay into the base for a multitude of different polearms from the spear to the halberd. The fighter carrying the staff needs to do is put a metal tip on the end of his weapon and he can poke holes in his enemy. He doesn’t need to though, because a heavy quarterstaff made of solid oak will shatter bones and bust up internal organs just fine on its own.

The fight will end before the guy using the mace can close, and without a shield he’s going to leave one half of his unarmored body entirely open. All you have to do is hit that part. Or start with their legs and move upwards. The staff is a highly effective self-defense weapon on par with, if not more popular than the sword. It lacks the glamor and the prestige, but it is incredibly effective in a wide variety of situations where the mace is just a metal club. Clubs are great, but they’re very repetitious and definitely not friendly.

This fight will start and end with one guy getting his ribs broken, maybe his collarbone after, then his head, and end the day dumped in the drink. Knocked off into the river.

The staff runs between being six to eight feet long, and the mace is… much shorter than that. Check out this fight scene from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, this showcases a fight between spears (this is an iconic fight scene) but pay attention to how far apart they are. When you’re fighting someone with a staff, they’ll keep you at a similar distance and they can use the entirety of the weapon. They can transition up and down the weapon with their grip to create new distances when the time comes to close. The guy with the staff can block the guy with the mace with one end, and then transition into a strike from the other without letting up pressure. Or, knock the mace away (if they’re in any danger, which is generous) and strike back across. The staff is controlled via leverage with the hands, and the fulcrum is where the hands are.

The guy with the mace would know, if he’s trained, this is a weapon that he doesn’t want to deal with and is unprepared for. This is a fight he wants to avoid, and he’d bring a different weapon. A weapon like a maul. Unarmored, a sword wouldn’t be much better for him if he has a mace and lacks a shield. Give the guy with a mace a shield and some armor, then you’ve got a fight.

No, this is not suddenly an entirely uneven fight and the guy with the mace is still at a disadvantage.

Allow me to explain.

A heavy oak staff can put a dent in your plate. This isn’t some light weapon, these are dense weapons. They often came plated at both ends in steel.  The mace has no real defensive options, it is made for swinging and you need to get close enough to your opponent to hit them. The staff is going to make that difficult. Remember, Little John’s traditional weapon is the quarterstaff and no one really questioned him taking that up against Norman knights. Despite being one of the Merry Men who generally takes it on the chin in modern adaptations, Little John could wreck a tax collector’s day. Trained people. Trained footmen. Trained knights.

You actually need the shield to block the staff, allowing the character with the mace to get close enough to strike their opponent. This won’t be easy, as the staff can still strike at the body parts the shield won’t or can’t block including the feet/legs and head.  This is where armor for the head and the feet come in. This limits the staff’s options, but doesn’t negate them. They can still go for the side of the body with the mace.  The guy with the mace needs to hide behind his shield, use it to block t attacks by the staff, get close enough to hit the staff wielder, and then strike them overhand with the mace.

If they lose any part of their body from the shoulder to the arm to hand to their legs on that side then they are done, thus with one side protected by the shield then the weapon side becomes the preferential target. Attacking the arm/hand wielding the weapon is an accepted strategy in martial forms across the globe.

Even with a shield though, the strikes taken on the shield are going to wear out the arm of the guy with the mace. The angle the shield is held is a strain, and the constant impact is going to wear out the bicep and tricep fairly quickly. Far more quickly than the impact will wear down the staff wielder’s hands. Without armor, the mace wielder’s muscles take the impact through the shield straight. Remember, a shield mitigates impact. It doesn’t negate it. Armor is the same, it mitigates the damage taken by impact. It does not, however, negate it.

Don’t underestimate one of the most common, functional, easily learned, and versatile weapons in human history just because it’s made of wood.

Ultimately, these pieces of cause and effect, opportunity and cost, and risk assessment with weapons are what make your fight tense. Me showing you why this guy is screwed should, honestly, be exciting to you because sacrifice is where the tension is and what makes a battle exciting. The battering of resources, the cutting away of options, the slow or quick degradation of the muscles to the point they’re no longer usable. The shield arm being battered so hard that the protection becomes worthless when the character can barely lift their arm. Understanding specifically what it is which makes a battle uneven or even creates opportunity to add tension to your fiction.

The dragons’ wings snapped open and they leveled off, sweeping over the train. Shooting over them in a blast, air screaming as they passed.

The dinosaurs shuffled, pressing together, milling from the scents and sounds.

“They’re going to stampede the train,” Anara observed, drawing her pistol from within the folds of her cloak. “Not that the diplo move fast.”

Nathan glanced at her sharply. “Have your men hold them!”

Anara lifted her wrist, murmuring into her link.

A sensation passed across the back of Nathan’s mind, the shiver of incoming danger. His neck prickled, hair raising on his skin. He whipped about.

A shadowy, hooded figure leapt across the packs on the back of the triceratops, fiery orange blade flashing in the sunlight.

Nathan’s blade ignited, he lunged between the attacker and Anara.

Circling overhead, Leon, Baral, and Dorcal roared a challenge the newcomers.

Nathan felt Leon shudder when the attacking dragons answered. Fifteen drakes, ten now, and two dragons. One male, a fully grown beta-king, and the other a female — a matriarch. The Renegades have a matriarch, Nathan thought, as the realization sank in. His blade clashed in a sizzle of flaming red light on orange, his enemy pressing her advantage, and he’d no more opportunity to think. He pressed his advantage, leveraging his blade as they slammed together. Pushing her back across the unstable footing of the packs. Or, he wondered when a boxes fell away to the ground in blow after blow, drawn after her.

Yes, his heart quickened, her.

Thin and lithe, the hooded woman leapt lightly from one box to the other. His mental pressure glancing off the tight bubble she contained herself within, telekinesis similarly blocked. She danced between the packs as they fell away. Dropping onto the triceratops long back when the last finally hit the ground, she levered her orange blade at his heart.

Two of the enemy drakes overhead broke off. Cutting away from Baral and Dorcal, they twisted in choreographed precision above the shifting herbivores and let out bone shaking roars.

Nathan’s teeth grit. Leon!

She’s here!

The diplodocus came crashing to a halt, their tails switching back and forth in terror. The train halted, backing up, and breaking off toward the trees. A massive wave of terror rose from the milling dinosaurs, sweeping out across the road. Animalistic terror and… something else.

Nathan stretched out with his mind, to get a better feel for the human undercurrent, but a second mind leapt between them. The shrouded woman jumped past him, cutting his mind off cleanly as her blade locked up his. She’s a dragonrider, he realized. No just any Renegade, but a trained Dragon-Knight. Her sword style faintly reminiscent of the Jesaran sabre techniques, but with stances predominantly influenced by those practiced by the Dragon-Knights out of High Reaches. He rained attacks down on her, striking evenly in tempo.

She answered him blow for blow, weight shifting with each of the triceratops lumbering steps.  telekinetic thrust threw her back across the packs and she twisted in midair to land on her feet. Her legs splayed, one hand pressed to the uneven canvas and rope. Her hooded head rose. Flame licked up her orange blade, light and heat crackling in the air. The woman shot forward, racing toward him along the length of the triceratops’s spine. She closed the distance between them, pulsing bright as a star in his second sight. A raw storm within his senses, sizzling his synapses.

Nathan struck low, toward her legs, and her blade met his. Bearing down on her with his weight, his sabre edged closer and closer to her protected leg.

Yielding under the pressure, she shut off her blade and stepped sideways. Let his weight carry him past her. Launching off the back of the triceratops, she twisted into a backflip and landed lightly on packed dirt. He saw a shadowed head lift as the triceratops continued on and felt the brief touch of her mind passing through his like fingers tracing over his palm. Then, she was gone, disappearing into the thickening gray-brown underbrush without a backwards glance.

Duels can provide a powerful effect in your fight scenes, there’s a horde of cultural and fictional tropes associated with them. You want them to be as evenly matched as possible, which is why they should carry the same weapons. However, you need to understand how to use them and the weapons you’ve decided to display. Training isn’t a good catch-all way of saying these two characters are evenly matched, because that’s not what training means. Two similarly equipped characters are on an equal level where they can display their skills, two characters carrying different weapons are going to be at the mercy of the weapon’s advantages. Trained characters know that. They’ll know when they’re at a disadvantage, and plan accordingly.

Two characters fighting with similar weapons with a similar level skill level are evenly matched.

The floor cracked apart into pentagons and two shifted clockwise, while the three others rose to create a staircase revolving in the opposite direction. Each moved a few fractions faster than the others as the lasers fired in triangular patterns across the training room.

Leah ran, blocking, dancing, shifting between the lasers. Her blade became an orange blur, leaving a wheel of fire about her. She leapt between the plates, counting the fractional seconds between shots. Her mind expanding, spreading to encompass the room.

See, Matron Helena’s voice echoed in her head, see everything.

The war droid gave chase, tracking her movements with its internal crystal memory cortex and processor. Assessing her, her habits, her steps, her fighting style and firing in predictive patterns meant to corner and eliminate.

Not simply the machine before you, see the connections, all the connections.

She froze the lasers before they reached her, and sent them glancing off toward the walls. Not long enough to pause, not long enough to appreciate, preen, or question. No room for uncertainty. No, she must be certain. Certain the energies flowing through her would answer commands without question. Must trust her body to answer when she needed it and trust herself to know what she needed to do.

There is a flow in the universe, a universal river bonding all life together.

Leah twisted between the lasers, they came on fast. Onto the ball of her foot, to her heel, swirl and step. Her feet found positions between scorch marks, her body disappearing and reappearing through red slashes. The blasts quickened as she raced counter clockwise across the platforms, chasing the ones moving above her.

Give in to the current, her mother’s voice thundered. Do not think! Do not fight the river! You will only drown. In order to gain control, you must cede to it. Cede your desire to control!

A hiss of steam lingered in her ears. She spun, blade lifting, to catch a downward stroke by the android. Its force pike bore down on her tired arms, bringing the crackling heat of her blade closer and closer to her skin.

There is a part of you which listens.

Leah twisted her blade sideways and leaned back, giving way under the android’s pressure. The staff swept past her. Her figure rippled, there and gone, mind catching three laser blasts and directed them into her attacker.

The android stumbled.

Listen, and let go!

Lunging, she swept her blade through the android’s chest in an orange flash. Plasma shearing into its central cortex and electric processors, she jumped past it onto the next platform. At the brush of her weight on adamantine, the platform began to shift in the opposite direction. Away from those above her, gap and speed widening massively rather than incrementally. Metal rattled underneath her feet, gears whining and humming. Leah grinned, knocking away blasts with her sabre. She ignored the sweat dripping down her forehead, streaking her cheeks and chin, the aching pain in her legs forgotten. The platform circled the hexagonal walls, bumping and hitching at the corners. “So, that’s how you want to play?” she called to the centralized computer. “Let’s go, bolt-bucket!”

Below, the separated android reactivated. A second set of legs sprang from the chassis, and it flipped onto them. The pike broke apart in its hands and became a pair of batons. Out of its separated bottom, four arms extended, two from the waist, and two from the thighs. Each palm glowed with red light, turned upward, and began to fire.

A character fighting against incredibly bad odds and winning? This character is proving their mettle as a badass and they pull dual duty ensuring you see the other tougher characters they battle as real threats. When you respect a character, you respect the characters they respect and their adversaries.

However, it is up to you to convey the physical and emotional stakes to the audience. You can’t expect them to understand, or to assume for you. Physical stakes come from understanding the difference between weapons, by grasping the inherent advantages and disadvantages they pose.

Real combat comes from strategy, rather than technique. Techniques combine to become a tactical strategy. One attack leads to another. You get the sense there’s a plan involved, even when the characters don’t say so. They communicate this plan to the audience through the techniques they use and their behavior. The techniques produce results, and the strain of combat wears on the combatant. Things start going well, and then events change. They get worse. You follow this rising pattern in escalation until we hit victory or defeat.

Fight scenes come with their own miniature narrative arcs, just like every other scene. You utilize everything you know about physical exertion to show the character being worn down, just like you would be in real life and having to draw deep on their inner reserves to break past the next hump. This is what makes sequences like this successful, not the other ancillary nonsense. Buzzwords like “training” and “experience” only work if you understand the logic they connect to. You can say two people are equal, but that doesn’t make it true when comparing context and circumstances. Weapons and martial combat exist to create scenarios which are inherently weighted in one person’s favor, which are unfair, and every individual wants to be the person on the side with the advantage. They are all going to try to ensure the situation falls in their favor, but the circumstances won’t always allow for it. The part where they’re not the same is a large part of what makes these scenes exciting. A weapon face off is to put one character at a significant disadvantage. It is a scene primarily about the weapons and not the people in match up. Where the people come in is their cleverness in using the weapons, the underdog as he or she tries to bridge the gap and the one who is ahead of the game trying to keep their advantage.

You want characters who are actively working out a way to win, rather than passively accepting their statistics and relying on those stats to do the work for them.


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Q&A: When You Know Nothing A Martial Arts Manual Can Be Very Confusing

I have a character that’s been trying to learn to fight by reading books. Aside from the fact that it’s a terrible way to learn (she doesn’t really have other options) is there a possibility that someone who was actually trained in the tradition of those same books would recognize what she was *trying* to do? When the character does start getting actual training, how much would her knowledge of theory actually help?

The answer is in that quintessential Yoda line:

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

Unlearn what you have learned means throwing away all your preconceptions and starting from scratch. You leave behind what you think you know because the truth is at the beginning of the journey you know nothing. Only when you accept this as a truth will you begin to learn. Otherwise, your preconceived ideas of what the thing is will color your training. Doing this is much more difficult than it sounds. Every person comes to their training with baggage, no one comes in clean. It’s only after those are left behind, when the mind opens, that the training truly begins. In the case of Luke, this means redefining what he knows to be true about the universe itself and what he knows to be possible. Struggling with this idea in the beginning, learning to let go and leave our initial understanding behind is the beginner’s very first struggle.

The limitations are in what we think we know, and that false confidence is the first source danger which must be defeated. False knowledge, half-knowledge lead to misleading confidence, and that confidence is based on a false belief in their own ability. This is a very dangerous position for the individual. Enough knowledge to think you know what you’re doing, to get you into enough trouble that might actually become life threatening, but without the necessary skills to get yourself back out.

In some ways, as a beginner, it is easiest to start raw.  However, a person who truly enters into training carrying nothing with them is rare. Everyone comes with expectations, with bad habits, with misunderstandings of basic terminology, with pride; thinking they’ve mastered the little ideology they’ve had access to.

“What’s in there?”

“Nothing, except that which you bring with you.”

The most dangerous enemy of the beginner is themselves.

The Empire Strikes Back really is a fantastic movie for understanding core concepts of martial arts training. For what its doing, it is actually very realistic.

For your character, the best example from fiction I can pull out is the first training scene from The Mask of Zorro with Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins.  Alejandro pulls out his sword, and Diego uses his to just slap the blade right out of his hand. The scene is played for laughs, but it has merit. Alejandro doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t even know how to hold the blade properly. The big thing to remember is that he thinks he does. After all, he saw Zorro fight as a kid. Like so many other kids, he practiced with the sword. He carries a sword because that’s what his hero did. His transformation under Diego is complete that Captain Love, who has encountered, fought, and totally defeated him before, takes forever to recognize him.

Your character is starting in the same place as Alejandro, except she has the added bonus of that she thinks she knows what she’s doing. She starts out with a little of that arrogance of someone who has studied the theory and thinks they know, even when they don’t know because they’re missing crucial context and the pieces she was expected to know before she read the document. This is what they don’t tell you about “How To Manuals” and demonstration videos: they’re supplementary. They’re great if you already know what you’re doing, if you’re a student with a teacher and has partners to practice the techniques with. They really suck if you’re starting from scratch. They won’t include basic detail because they’ll assume your training already included the explanation of why.

She’ll have spent at least the first day trying to figure out terminology, and she may never totally figure it out. Tempo or the use of time is a foundational concept in European fencing. Tempo directly relates to when and how the fencer has the opportunity to strike, it only loosely relates to a normal person’s grasp of time. For a fencer, the concept is so basic and ubiquitous that the manual won’t bother to explain, and a student reading the manual will be expected to already know what the manual is discussing.

Trust me, I’ve read lots of manuals written by seasoned professionals. They’re writing for a specific audience, and that audience is not the raw greenhorn.

The book won’t explain all the other little problems either, like vibration and the way that wears down the hand/wrist. How holding a sword at a specific angle for a prolonged period of time quickly wears down the  muscles. They probably won’t explain about the balance points within the blade. The problem is not that the sword is heavy. It’s the motion and stress on the limbs which wears you down. Hold your arm out in front of you, you’ll start feeling the drag of gravity on the arm. The  longer this goes on, the harder it gets.

Missing a practice partner, she’ll never learn about distance and the appropriate striking distances versus the safe distances. With a sword that lack of knowledge could get her killed right out of the gate. Theory is too far ahead of where she needs to be because she’ll skip past the basics. This leads to incredibly obvious flaws.

Alejandro gets the sword slapped right out of his hand. Why? He doesn’t know how to properly hold it, or angle his wrist, or brace his arm against an incoming attack. He’s either too tensed or not tensed enough, he’s not prepared for the hit, and the sword goes flying.

A training manual has just enough information in it to allow you to conceptualize the idea in your head, this will lead you to thinking you know what your doing and feeling confident. Understanding something mentally, however, doesn’t mean you understand it.

Now, once you know what you’re doing, then a training manual becomes extremely helpful. It can get you to think about the material and the techniques in new ways you didn’t consider before, offer up opinions, ideas, and philosophies which are in fact truly wise. The training manual can indeed help you, but only after you’re past the initial hump. So, when she’s an intermediate, what that training manual initially taught her will help. As a raw beginner, it will also trick her into thinking she knows more than she does and she’ll only begin to progress after she accepts this as fact.

My second suggestion is go over to Wikitenaur. You need to familiarize yourself with the special art of the written fencing manuals. “Wikitenaur” is a fantastic website filled with free translations of historical treatises written by the masters of their art. Read some for practice, and see how far you get without needing extra research to understand what it was you just read.

Take this passage from Le Jeu de la Hache (“The Play of the Axe”, MS Français 1996), written by an anonymous Milanese fencing master in 1400 and translated from French by Dr. Sydney Anglo.

[4] When one would give you a swinging blow, right-hander to right-hander. If you have the croix in front, you can step forward with your left foot, receiving his blow, picking it up with the queue of your axe and – in a single movement – bear downward to make his axe fall to the ground. And from there, following up one foot after the other, you can give him a jab with the said queue, running it through the left hand, at the face: either there or wherever seems good to you. Or swing at his head.

Tell me, what does this technique look like? What sort of axe are they using? Great axe? Poleaxe? Hatchet? One handed or two? Which end is the croix? Which end is the queue?

Some manuals have pictures, some don’t. Without pictures, you’re going to be even more at a loss.

I’ll take pity on you. This is about how to use a poleaxe. You’re essentially stepping forward and connecting at the head of the axe, switching directions to drive the blow to the ground and following up by hitting your enemy with the butt of your weapon which is the queue. If you didn’t know that the poleaxe is a polearm and therefore a staff weapon, you might’ve been completely lost. If you don’t know that you use both ends of a staff weapon, often interchangeably, you might still be lost. The end of a poleaxe is, after all, a metal spike.

The book in that second link has pictures and a much better explanation, but that explanation is an explanation of an explanation. Example Two here is unlikely to be the type of training manual that your character has access to, because number two is written from a historian’s perspective with the idea that the poleaxe is no longer a ubiquitous tool of warfare. Example Two is the one both you and your character needs, but that won’t be the one she has access to unless she’s reading a historian’s explanation of the fighting style; which is, again, not what she has.

Sun Tzu is a great example of a book entirely about theory and military philosophy, whose stratagems are so on point they’re still used as the beginner’s guide today. However, a book like this is thin on practical, because this book is written by a general writing to other generals about warfare. In terms of a character learning about generalized practical theory, The Art of War is a much better example than a technical manual. However, strategy won’t teach you how to punch someone.

The Book of the Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. This is a very helpful book, and the five different books cover different aspects of combat from practical to spiritual philosophy. However, when it comes to practical technique, you’re still going to run into the same problems that we ran into with “The Play of the Axe”. These books are written for students who are already practicing the art, and not students who are considering whether or not they’re going to learn.

This is why I get much more out an instructional martial arts video found on YouTube than most of my followers do. I may get confused in places, but I come to it with a foundation which allows me to quickly grasp the concepts at play. This is a just matter of practice. I’ve spent more time with martial arts masters, I know more or less what to look for, and I understand the basics of language they’re using. A martial arts manual is not written for you, the beginner, but for the student. In this sense, the entire concept of a training manual or a “how to” book lies to you. You can ultimately end up more confused than you were than when you started, and, like Renaissance actors  and HEMA practitioners, you’re going to get nowhere without a lot of trial and error.

If this character lacks a training partner to test stuff out with then she never had a chance at trial and error. She only has what she knows in her head, and practiced with her body while under no duress. She has a fighting style filled to the brim with flaws that are just barely recognizable, and I mean they’re recognizable in the way a child trying to perform moves from a Jackie Chan movie looks like Jackie Chan.

So, could they recognize what she’s doing? Maybe. However, European training manuals were mostly created on commission by those with the money to pay for them. The masters themselves tended to be fairly secretive because this training is what they made their living on. The idea of sharing knowledge only helps the enemy. So, in the European set up, your character needs to have a relative who either purchased one of these (exceedingly rare) books or who commissioned one themselves from the master. Or who was a student of the master, or something.

These other characters, if they can tell what she’s doing is a bastardization of what they were taught, are going to be rather confused. They’re more likely to start off offended than feel a sense of kinship, and may transition to kinship but only in the way one feels toward an overeager puppy. Depending on how she behaves, they may view her as a pretender. She’ll need to earn her way in, and if she doesn’t have the coin to pay them for their time then she’s going to need to think of something else.

This is the second secret I’m going to blow, martial arts masters are always paid. Their teaching is a trade, and their skills are in high demand. Their disciples pay them in coin, with a position of prestige, or labor. Or, a combination of all of the above.

So, how is she going to pay for her training? (The standard one if she’s not rich is labor and can’t scrape together the coin to pay, as an apprentice which is a glorified term for an indentured servant.) It’s not just talent, it’s coin. This is a business. You’ve got to pay for the service, especially in the European tradition. Or be the servant of someone who hired the master and is paying for the service.  (Martial arts movies understand this one, but almost no one else does. Understanding this is key to writing a training sequence because physical labor like washing the sheets, cleaning the floors, and carrying water for the cook is a key component of your character’s training.) Begging is not out of the question. So, don’t shy away out of embarrassment or your character’s embarrassment. Embarrassment is actually a key part of the genre, a key part of training, and a key aspect of learning in general. Sometimes, you have to do silly things and get dumped on your ass. You’re going to get dumped on your ass a lot in martial training,  both metaphorically and physically.

A martial arts master is someone whose skills are in high demand, and the onus is on the character to prove why they’re worthy of being trained. Why should this master spend their precious time on them, especially if the master isn’t getting something out of it? The only time this isn’t true is the Chosen One dynamic, where the master is usually the volunteer, but even then the Chosen One has to take their lumps. Remember, your master is a character and not a prop. The same is true for the other characters who might or might not notice her.


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Q&A: Yes, Kicks are a Thing

My cousin is a fan of the character Archer from the series ‘Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works’. He was curious if Archer’s habit of kicking a foe away from him to gain distance in a close-combat fight with weapons is something belonging to a particular martial arts style. Do you know if this is the case? How reliable would that tactic be in real life? Seems to me that there’s a big chance of your opponent grabbing your leg, after all.

It’s not a specific martial art, because nearly every martial art has their own variation on this one. Martial arts have a concept called distance, or range, which governs the ranges one can fight at with different weapon types. This runs from swords to knives to kicks to hands and then to grappling, and after grappling we’re on the ground. Unless specifically attempted to alter, combat invariably moves inwards from your feet to your hands to grappling and then the ground. Now, this means you have specific techniques which can be used at specific ranges and once you get too close or too far away those techniques become significantly less useful.

So, if you’re a warrior like Archer who relies on specific ranges in order to be effective then what do you do? You’ve got to find a way to get your enemy back into the range you want, which is away from you. Now, under normal circumstances, one would most likely consider using their hands. This is what most non-combatants are going to gravitate towards, because kicks require training to be able to pull off in combat. They’re powerful, but they’re also high risk. However, Archer needs his legs. He dual wields his blades in close quarters, he can’t use his hands without sacrificing one or both of his blades. Those blades cost mana to resummon, over time this will become costly to his reserves and takes time. He won’t drop them unless the situation requires it. So, he falls back to a secondary option by utilizing his legs and feet for defense/control.

Hence that specific kick. In Taekwondo, we call it the push kick. It isn’t about damaging your opponent so much as pushing them back. This kick is specifically utilized in getting your opponent into the range you want them, i.e. the range where you are more effective. For Archer, this means getting a melee enemy away from him and back into a better range for his weapons.

Here’s the thing to understand about kicks:

Strike to strike they are incredibly powerful. Power comes from your body’s momentum. Momentum is gained by torque, or twisting your body and joints in order to gain power to strike. The whole body moves. For a punch, this means using your shoulders and hips together at the same moment with your arm in order to connect. Kicks involve one of your legs taking flight, they’re heavier, stronger, faster, and utilize greater rotation than you will ever get off your hands and arms. They are a martial arts mainstay for this reason, even in the disciplines where they are not the specialty. If you ever wind up facing someone with a kicking specialty that knows how to properly utilize their legs, watch out.

You can catch a kick, you can block a kick, and they are riskier because they require more motion which is easier to see coming. If your opponent manages to capture your leg, then the fight is over for all intents in purposes. For this reason, a kick is often part of a finisher or at the end of a combination. They distract your attention with other techniques, and then the kick comes. Blocking a kick is also risky, not just because their powerful but catching a kick requires you be able to preempt it and catch it before  the leg enters extension. This means you have to stop the kick while its still in chamber stage, and you need to guess that they’ll be committing to risky business or else you just lost your defense to a feint. Blocking a kick rather than dodging a kick requires you move your hands or a leg to stop the kick. A push kick cranks all the way into the chest before it extends and acts as a shove outward, which means it can be done in tight confines like when in the hand range where most of the general kicks (in disciplines other than Muay Thai) become useless. You can also grab your opponent at that distance and crank your leg right into their stomach/chest. They can’t go anywhere and they’re forced to take the full blow rather than absorbing some into the stumble/fall. Take a roundhouse to your forearm and you’ll walk around with a bruise the size of your forearm for several weeks, at least. Time your block wrong, and that can easily translate into broken bones.

It’s easy to discount kicks if you’ve never seen them in action, and most self-defense experts will say you shouldn’t use them. This is because they take longer to master, are more dangerous, and have greater requirements in overall flexibility in order to be used effectively. You can’t effectively learn the sidekick in a two week crash course. However, the kicks are a defined pillar in the four pillars of martial arts. (Fists, Feet, Ground Fighting, Standing Grappling/Joint Locks.) Sometimes, it can be broken into five. If kicks were totally useless, or too risky, they wouldn’t exist as a focus.

  Kicks are powerful enough as techniques to be worth the risk.

For writers, especially writers without a martial arts background, this is going to be difficult. You’re not used to thinking with your feet, or utilizing the wide array of options which come with footwork and kicks. The key to understanding the utility of kicks lies in the if,  if they can catch your leg. If they can stop you. If they see it coming. If you miss.  But, what if you don’t?

The reward you gain in success runs about equal to the chance of failure. These techniques are high risk, high reward.

Now, envisioning this is going to be where most writers will run into problems. Hands are easy, you can wrap your mind around them as a basic concept. The strengths and weaknesses of the leg are similar, but its too easy to start seeing catching a leg coming at you full speed to be easy as catching a hand.

It isn’t.

A foot buried in your stomach in full extension is much more dangerous than a sucker punch, even if you tense your abdominal muscles a large portion of that force is going to go right through you. The timing risks are higher in failure with a leg than they are with the hands.

Archer is essentially performing a sucker punch with his leg on an incoming enemy, and then he’s saying, “get away from me.” He does this without ever having to lose hold of or sacrifice his weapons in a situation where he very well might have to. This is why warriors carry somewhere around two to four weapons on their person at all times. Total specialization in archery makes you next to useless when knocked into sword range, short sword range, or knife range. If you’re in a situation where someone else can hit you, they’re too close and you’ve ceded your advantage. You want to not be there anymore, or you want them to not be there anymore. Either way, you need the ability to either switch to a different weapon, or force them to be somewhere else. This kick is the definition of, “be somewhere else.” It creates the needed opportunity to move someone from standing grappling to kick range. Which is why lots of martial arts actually do use some variation of it or keep it in their back pocket as part of a larger tactical approach.

The one thing I can give the Fate/Stay Night anime series is that they excel at showing ranges for weapons and incorporating them into the different character’s combat styles. I mean, it is very Japanese, but studying up on Lancer versus Archer versus Berserker versus Saber is not a bad place to start if you’re looking to grasp how different weapon types can function when dialed to eleven. The characters do utilize strategies and tactics when fighting each other, which is nice. They’re usually, loosely, working off some real world combat concepts in the way the weaponry pairs off. The series is pretty good about balancing out the strengths and weaknesses against each other to create tension in the fights. Saber having trouble closing on Lancer is a real problem someone with a sword will face against a spear. I mean, the setting is war games with heroes from history in a battle royal martial arts competition.


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Q&A: Realism

Do you look down on people who don’t write certain scenarios as “realistically” as they could? I generally try and do research but sometimes I just want to tell a story, you know, I’m working towards the character journey and emotional fulfilment, I’m not writing non-fiction. Especially with fanfiction where I’m not getting paid and I’m just doing this for fun.

This is going to be one of those “it depends” answers.  In this case the answer centers on what you mean by “realistic”, and even then it isn’t “look down on” so much as be “disappointed by”.

Here’s the criteria:

1) Does the scene behave in accordance with the setting rules set forward by the narrative?

2) Are the characters behaving in accordance to and making decisions which jive with their previous decisions/who they’ve been established to be?

3) If they break with those, is the narrative exploring the consequences of those choices and the impact on the character? i.e. Showing me what happens when a character who abhors violence is suddenly forced to engage in violence?

4) Are the characters behaving in ways that jive with their established skill levels? Is the character who has never engaged in violence before carving their way through experienced combatants with no issues? Is this explained or any in-narrative justification given for the behavior? Are there consequences?

3) Does something happen?

4) Is it interesting?

5) Did I enjoy it?

Ultimately as a reader, I want narrative consistency. I don’t care if you break completely with how something would work in the real world so long as it jives with what your characters would do in the given scenario. The thing to understand about fight scenes is that what makes them interesting isn’t the violence itself but rather what the violence leads to. Acknowledging that skill and talent are separate, that it takes work to acquire new skills, accepting that your characters will not be perfect at everything, that they’ll have to learn and in some cases fail, will ultimately lead to better storytelling. Learning as much as you can about human behavior will make forging your way through easier for you because most of this comes down to logical/emotional reactions to stress.

With a fight scene, you’ve put your character in a boiling pot. What happens next is what’s most important, and what your characters do is what the audience is invested in. Learning all you can about how violence works in the real world doesn’t mean you’re beholden to it. Real violence is not entertaining. In terms of entertainment, violence is boring, it is over too quickly, and occurs too fast for one to fully process it. If you were to write a fight scene exactly like one would experience it in reality, you’d be up a creek. It wouldn’t be interesting to your audience. Totally accurate representation or imitation is what the audience thinks they’re supposed to want, and what some authors believe they’re supposed to give. However, neither are possible. Most of the fight scenes you’ll have people point to as being accurate are actually nowhere close.

I’ll level with you on this: I don’t find Luke Skywalker to be a boring character. I find him fascinating, and I have since I was about seven years old. His training with Yoda is “realistic” in that it jives with my own experiences when I’ve encountered martial arts masters and the way they’ve spoken about the more esoteric portions of martial arts. However, I’d have checked out with him if he beat Darth Vader in single combat during Empire Strikes Back. It wouldn’t be logical, it wouldn’t make sense for him to be able to fight on an even field with Darth Vader after so little training. Certainly not to a standstill, and especially not to victory. The only reason he held his own for so long was due to Vader attempting to capture him alive.

This is an example of narrative consistency, we have explanations for what happened and why. We know what both Luke and Vader were attempting to accomplish from that exchange, and more importantly what that failure taught Luke. The final battle of Empire Strikes Back not only moves the narrative forward but serves as a catalyst for Luke’s character development going into Return of the Jedi. He fails, but he learns from that failure and his failure is due to his personal flaws which have been shown throughout A New Hope and Empire.

What I don’t like is a hero suddenly being able to go toe to toe with the narrative’s main villain with no explanation and no reasoning, especially when it’s been consistently shown throughout the narrative that skill is learned and natural talent requires training.

Luke couldn’t have tackled Vader head on in A New Hope. Though he’s given the lightsaber, we never see him use it until the second movie and he only uses it with any real proficiency after his training with Yoda. This is in keeping with the established rules that the lightsaber is a Jedi weapon and requires specific training in the Force itself for one to be able to use it. More than that, the dueling in Star Wars is based in Kendo and following specific rules on swordplay. There is no assumption that skill in one kind of combat means one is proficient in all versions of combat.

Here’s what you should understand.

Your character doesn’t need to be good at fighting in order for me to enjoy or be invested in their fight scene.

Your protagonists can cower and curl up in a corner, hiding from everything and I will still be invested in their narrative if this behavior fits with their skill level, experience, and philosophy.

Your fight scenes are graded by me on how well they move your story forward, and a fight scene that is not true to who your characters are is, for me, boring.

The rules you established for your setting and how well you hold to them is what I care about because this is the thread which maintains my suspension of disbelief.

I am invested in your characters, I care about their narrative, and who I’m told they are. I don’t need them to be extensions of me or a stand in, I don’t need them to be something they’re not. I care about the rules of your setting which you established, and which you are honor bound to follow. Cheating at the rules you established is like cheating in the middle of a poker game. I don’t care you can peek at all the cards on the table, but when you start actively favoring one party at the expense of the others and changing the rules to make things easier is the point I check out. That’s not why I watch people play poker. If you start changing the rules on me, especially without explanation, then I can’t trust you anymore.

Between you and the reader is a clause of trust established on that first page. This clause needs to be honored. Ultimately, that’s the only piece of integrity you should care about. I’m not saying you should care about what they think or where they believe your story should be going, but the trust established between the two of you about the ongoing rules the narrative will function under is sacred. This core truth is the real point behind world building.

Without trust, there’s no one to read your story.


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Q&A: Sadism

True or false: Pointless sadism can get in the way of winning a fight? Like, if you’re focused on inflicting as much pain as possible instead of finding the most efficient way of killing someone? Could a villain’s cruelty actually be his undoing, maybe? Or would the evil overlord either have died or learned his lesson long ago? What pitfalls should you avoid if you decide to go this route? Would this be the way to go in a story with a light tone (but not outright comedy) that’s light on realism?

The problem with too much sadism (or sadism that is self-admitted to be pointless) is that your villain needs to actually get around to doing their job and moving the plot forward. It’s important to remember that a character’s proclivities in combat are signs of their personality and hints into their ability to achieve success. A villain who cannot control their own sadism and has no one higher up to control it for them or direct those habits toward useful goals, a la Rabban and the Baron Harkonnen from Dune, is going nowhere fast.

This can be a real problem to the narrative if your villain’s self-motivation leads them to hole up in some small village high in the Caucus mountains in order to fully engage in their sadism unchallenged while a hero similarly lacking in motivation is twiddling their thumbs in the United States.

When you’re setting up your plot, you need a villain whose interests match the intended narrative course. This is especially true when the villain is the one whose action and motivations are driving the narrative forward, the one putting pieces into play for the hero to respond to. If they never do that, you have no story.

Like all predators, a villain that’s into sadism and who can’t control their own impulses is going to take the path of least resistance. Which is why I said a small town somewhere with a disorganized military, poor response times, and no ability to fight back. If all they want is to inflict their will on others, to indulge their worst base impulses, enjoy causing havoc, then they’re logically going to go the way of other tinpot dictators. They are going to go somewhere they can exploit poor conditions in order to get what they want.

The problem with these sorts of characters is not that they aren’t realistic or that this can be their undoing (it certainly can be), but that they have no motivation to be where they are. This is both a blow to your narrative and to you because you ultimately wind up with a substandard villain.

An evil overlord may be evil but they’re still an overlord, there’s an internal justification for how they achieved that position on their own merits. Overthrowing another government isn’t small potatoes, this is someone with the capacity for planning, who got the vast majority of the population on their side (at least temporarily), and who is capable of strategic thinking if not planning. They’re also politically savvy. All these traits belong to someone who can control their impulses, who may be a sadist and may enjoy torture but who also knows when to indulge. They know how to orchestrate the blunt instruments around them to their advantage, even when they are the biggest monster on the table.

One gets to the top by understanding what they need to do and then doing it. However, they need motivation to get there and this motivation must be specific to their circumstances rather than generic. When you’re looking at a specific Monster of the Week setup whether it’s Power Rangers or Sailor Moon, the big villain has a specific goal that they’re putting a specific piece into play in order to achieve. In the case of Sailor Moon, the bad guys in the first season were trying to locate the silver crystal and all the hijinks start from there. They had a reason to be where they were, had a specific goal they could verbalize, and a plan to achieve it. The heroes job was to disrupt that plan. In the case of Dune, we have three sadists from House Harkonnen, one idiot and two attempting to play each other while all being manipulated by House Corrino off an ages old feud with House Atreides. Arrakis is not a reward, it’s a killing ground used by the Emperor to rid himself of potential rivals.

When you lack A and B with just a sadist, we wind up with characters like Semirhage from The Wheel of Time who spends multiple books doing a shadowy something but whom we mostly just see kidnapping individuals in order to perform experiments on them. (This is because we don’t know initially where any of them are or who they’re pretending to be, sometimes for several novels on end.) The series’ game of “Find the Forsaken” sometimes had a bad habit of undercutting the Forsaken.

Your villain needs a plan which coincides with the heroes in order for them to clash. A specific, internal justification is always better and will always prove more successful than an external justification. They need to be there for the narrative never answers why they’re there in a satisfactory way for your audience. They’re there because they’re the villain is not actually an answer.

Why here? Why now?

Those are important questions to delve into. It may take the heroes and the audience the entire narrative to work out the true reason, but its important that both the villain and the author have the answer or some inkling of it from the onset. The secondary motivational why lies in the character’s backstory, but the initial one should be easy enough to find. Just remember to look for that internal justification from the villain, why they’re doing what they’re doing and what it is they want. The needs of the villain and the needs of the hero and the needs of the narrative must coincide. If you plan for your villain to do the thing (rather than ultimately fail at the thing on their own power rather than be stopped by a hero) then they must be someone capable of doing the thing. Someone who would have succeeded if there were no meddling kids around to stop them.

The Baron Harkonnen was always destined to fail, not because of Paul, but because the Emperor would have ultimately stopped him. Arrakis was too big a prize for him to ultimately control. The Emperor, however, could have succeeded in his plan to rid himself of both Houses if Paul and Jessica had both been someone else. If they’d been normal, a normal consort and a normal child of the nobility. In Paul’s case, Arrakis and the spice was a catalyst for unexpected transformation.

In answer to the question: if the head honcho villain never learned their lesson prior to meeting the hero then it is likely they’d never have achieved their position. They’d lack the ambition, control, and cleverness needed to pull off their plots. The important thing to remember is that the villain always faces resistance, and faced resistance before your hero arrived on the scene. Others have tried to fight the villain and they failed. You’ve got to answer the question of why those others failed and in such a way that doesn’t make their sacrifices worthless or meaningless. If it was some easy solution, someone would have come up with the answer and tried it.

An easy work around for this is to come up with the plans that were tried and did fail. This will pull double duty for you of better establishing your villain’s true capabilities and know when your heroes are making stupid mistakes. Don’t make the mistake of assuming the random population in your narrative is totally helpless or incapable of standing up for themselves.

Remember, a sadist incapable of controlling themselves is a blunt instrument. One put to purpose by another and given direction. The fear they inspire is real, but their weaknesses are obvious. One can’t win on fear alone. The fear is there to keep you from fighting back, but the structure put into place is what will keep the average person from going anywhere.


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Q&A: Gallows Humor

Do you have any advice on injecting black humor into my assassin’s narrative without being tasteless?

You can’t. Gallows humor revolves specifically around being tasteless, around saying very inappropriate things, and making a mockery of the situation. You are, after all, laughing at the pain of others.

The question is: were you funny?

That is the make or break rule of comedy, and understanding how to be funny with gallows humor requires understanding gallows humor. When you fail at gallows humor, you are just that asshole who said an inappropriate thing at the wrong time and then laughed at their own terrible joke.

Humor is the connections your mind makes before other people get there. As such, it tells us a lot about a person, who they are, how they think, what kind of experiences they’ve had, where they’ve been, what they’ve done, and who they are. This is part of why funny people break first, your sense of humor will tell your interrogator how you think and they’ll use that against you. (There’s some black humor in turning the knife on yourself, especially unwittingly.)

In real life, gallows humor is a sign of what experiences you’ve had, how you respond to them, and what you’ve become inured to. Gallows humor by its very nature is a societal taboo, you’re saying something shocking but the shock or the inappropriateness is not what makes the joke funny. For gallows humor to be successful, it must also be insightful. The outrageous comment served a purpose, had a point, drew a connection that their audience couldn’t see.

Humor is taking the situation you’re in, drawing insight from it, and making an observation. If you don’t do that, then your joke will fail. Gallows humor represents a high bar because it is offensive by its very nature, but the observation and the unexpected connection of two pieces are why we laugh. Gallows humor has to be relevant to the situation at hand, it is directly related to what is happening in front of you. You have a better understanding of what is going on around you than others who have not been inducted into this view of the world. Gallows humor directly relies on your ability to look at a situation before you, gather up the pieces, and make an observation for a joke that will not work anywhere other than in this exact moment. You can’t, really, save this shit for later, except when telling the joke to someone else who was there at the time.

Soldiers, cops, doctors, customer service reps, people who work in retail, they all have very specific forms of humor that can be shared because of their shared experience. If you lack that experience, then you will be outside of it.

The moment gallows humor crystallizes is when the character really does stop giving a shit. Other humans become ambulatory bags of meat and then it’s okay to laugh at their suffering, or make jokes at their expense. This doesn’t mean it’s societally okay, if your character utilizes black humor they can and should expect to be called out for it. However, the character no longer cares how their listener is going to receive the joke because the joke was funny to them. What they’ve been through has been normalized, they’re no longer horrified by it and now it is just funny.

Humor in fiction functions much the same way, except with the added dynamic of the purpose it serves to clue the audience in through those observations made by the characters. M.A.S.H. and Law & Order are both a masters of utilizing humor as a form of exposition without the audience ever realizing it. The jokes serve a specific purpose, while also underscoring the natures of the characters’ themselves.

If your characters humor does not serve a purpose then it won’t be funny, they’ll be tasteless and an asshole instead of a tasteless funny asshole. For an assassin, this kind of humor could be a weapon they use against others. It could be a dead give away to their nature, and expose them to normal people around them. Or, they just spend so much time alone they tell jokes that are only amusing to them and that the people around them don’t find funny. (Though, the audience might.)

George Carlin is right, any joke can be funny no matter how inappropriate, that you will laugh at despite yourself, and you can find humor in any situation. He’s also right in that it has to be funny. The shock is not what’s funny, the taboo is not what makes it funny, the observation and the unexpected connection between two different pieces somehow applicable to the situation are where the joke is.

The trick to grasping gallows humor is that you first need to own it. No wishy-washy, “but I don’t want to offend someone”, this form of humor is offensive by its very nature. However, the next step is in understanding the offensive part wasn’t what was funny. Humor comes from disrupting audience expectations at key points. You can’t get there just by being shocking, you’ve also got to get them to laugh. In this case, it’s funny because it’s accurate.

Gallows humor is often utilizing people’s pain to mock something else occurring in the scene. In the case of M.A.S.H. for example, the point is the realities of war and death versus the jingoistic illusions sold to the populace at large. The humor works to firmly root our understanding in the horrors happening, and make us aware of them. Humor also transforms the horrors into something less incomprehensible. It connects the incomprehensible to the absurd in ways that can make performing “meatball surgery” on hundreds of teenagers who were torn apart into an almost manageable experience.

Gallows humor is often specifically targeting cultural illusions about death, about the way people die, about the arbitrary nature of it.

“He was such a brave and noble soldier. Too bad he shat himself right there at the end, and then again after his corpse went cold. You’d think the human body could only stack up so much shit, but no. There’s always more.”

The joke is you shit yourself when you’re scared and after you die, and the fact the whole situation was shit to begin with.

Gallows humor is often biting, bitter, and disillusioned. It has a target, though that target may not be what you initially think. After all, a gallows humor joke at a funeral is usually targeting the mourners themselves. The disconnect between the person who died, who they were, and what is said about them. Gallows humor at a crime scene or over a dead body could very well be about the situational irony or an observation of the person’s unexpected nature or the nature of their death. It can be crass and cruel, and very difficult to hear.

The ending point is that humor is about who your character is as a person and how they express themselves. However, to successfully carry the humor off, you’ll need to be realistic about how other people would respond. (Specific people, not a generic response.) You’ll also need to get used to not giving a shit. This is not the kind of humor one uses in order to make people like them. It’s more the kind that gets people to like you in spite of themselves. This is a very specific type of humor which appeals to a very specific type of character, and is an example of the way they look at other human beings. The kind that gets people to call you an asshole, but, you know, a funny asshole.

Try to remember, assassins are not nice people. Assholes can indeed be very funny. You’re character doesn’t have to be likeable to be a good protagonist. Humor is an expression of character, experience, and the way the mind puts information together.

Again, there’s only one real metric: was it funny?

Your character has three audiences, themselves, the people around them, and the audience at large. If you tell the joke right, then the audience will sympathize with your character. Tell it wrong, and they’ll sympathize with the people who got offended. If you don’t provide them with that outlet within the narrative because you’re desperate for your character to appear funny, you risk taking them out of the narrative entirely. You need a good foil, and a way to catch yourself when the joke fails. Don’t get so caught up in trying to be funny that you lose the perspective on when your character goes over the line. This is a high bar, your character is going to fall down a few times. Jokes just don’t land.

You’re never funny 100% of the time, even when you do it for a living. Add the dynamic for your character of when the joke doesn’t land, and those who don’t find them funny.

It makes them human.


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Q&A: Distinctive Martial Arts

Hi, i’m giving my MC a dinstictive combat style. Is there any inherent advantage/drawback in a fighting style focusing on elbow/knee strikes over just punching and kicking?

I’m going to say something, and it’s going to sound very mean, but the problem with authors trying to make their own distinctive martial arts is often they don’t know anything about martial arts or the process in how martial arts are developed.

As an example, this is basically like saying Kenshin’s Hiten Mitsurugi style is special because he uses a katana, not the way he uses a katana and the specific approach he chooses to take to combat. In the course of the manga, he would also never fight another character using a katana during the Revolution even though they were common. That’s basically what the elbows and knees suggestion sounds like.

If that seems a bit silly to you, it should, because it is. This is a beginner problem. If you don’t understand the basics, you’re not going to be able to advocate for anything unique or different.

(For reference: Kenshin using a reverse blade wasn’t just because he wanted to avoid killing. The Hiten-Mitsurugi style was based on the fundamentals used in Iaido, and specialized in the fast draw for the katana which is a very fragile weapon. The blunt blade hindered the speed at which he could draw his blade, reducing both its power on the attack and the speed at which it struck. He essentially gave himself a personal handicap. The reverse blade is an iaito or a practice blade.)

When you’re setting out to create a martial art for your character, it’s a very good idea to go read up on a lot of different martial arts and specifically the autobiographies written by martial arts masters. Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings is  one of the quintessential recommendations for martial artists, but Sun Tzu’s Art of War, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee, Small Circle Jujitsu by Wally Jay, Kadokan Judo: The Essential Guide to Judo by Its Founder Jigoro Kano by Jigoro Kano, and many others are an excellent place to start.

Reading these books will give you insight into the minds of martial arts masters and their explanations of what they noticed was missing in the martial arts world around them, and how they developed their martial art. They’ll also help you better grasp the concept of techniques and what makes those techniques distinctive or unique. The major flaw most authors in the written medium have in giving their character a “distinctive” martial art comes straight out of an important trope in Shounen anime. When one character has a special/unique martial art… so does everyone else of any importance. This is true to life, everyone is developing their own unique takes on their martial art, modifying those skills to what works best for them, and moving forward. Rurouni Kenshin, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, Bleach, and most major martial arts based manga will showcase this with both the heroes and the villains, ultimately making their setting stronger as a result. The idea never occurs to just one person, the difference is in what they do with it.

Everyone uses elbows and knees, and no one does “just punching and kicking” unless those elbows and knees are banned like in some competitive sports. You need your elbows and knees, they’re primarily functional at distances where you can’t generate force for a punch like when you’ve been grabbed or you’re standing nose to nose with someone else. However, if your character over focuses on elbows and knees they’ll be at a distinct disadvantage always against the punchers and (especially) the ones who kick. They’ll have difficulty creating the openings they need to bring the knees and elbows into play. Which is done through… yes, punches and kicks.

Knees and elbows are one of the most obvious, easiest, and effective defensive tactics for someone who knows nothing. They are also among the easiest to block. For reference, the idea that other characters in your setting wouldn’t come up with the idea of using their elbows and knees puts the concept in the range of “my character invented menstruation.” (Which yes, did happen in a rather infamous book series.)

Like everything else, elbows and knees are distance based strikes and actually less powerful than their fist and foot counterparts. You’re only using half the leg or arm to generate force. What makes them strong is the soft parts of the body they aim for, rather than them as techniques themselves.

You can figure out how close you need to be in order to use an elbow by making an elbow. Hold your hand out before your face with your arm completely stretched out and then bend it into an elbow. That’s how close your opponent will be to you.

Here’s the easy breakdown on martial styles.

1) Every martial arts style is actually distinctive. They’re all unique.

I know it sounds like “everyone’s unique in their own special ways” but this is true. The only way you’re going to develop really distinctive martial arts for your setting is to start fanboying or girling over every single prominent practitioner like you get out of a Japanese shounen anime like Rurouni Kenshin. There’s a reason for this, and that reason is: every martial art style is unique, and every person who practices a martial art has a unique and individual style. Everyone’s body is just a little bit different. Everyone will have techniques that appeal to them more than others. Those differences can lead to some massive changes, including the evolution of new martial arts.

The Japanese are a little weird, but the full celebrating of characters with these highly specialized techniques is somewhat close to real life. They just hyper-focus on single action, which is cultural. (It also cuts down work for the artist and animators.) However, to understand the importance of Kenshin’s draw or Saito’s, you’d need to understand iajutsu/iado, kenjutsu/kendo. The answer for the katana is that it’s an exceedingly fragile weapon, so you need to win on one strike.

2) What makes a martial art distinct is combat philosophy and the way techniques are used/modified.

Often, you’re looking at minute differences in chambers or footwork or turnover to divide one martial art’s technique from another. The difference in how these techniques get used, how they’re combined into combinations, or the parts of the body they target.

The trick to understanding what makes Muay Thai special isn’t the fact it’s hyper aggressive. It is, but only for sport martial arts. The unique aspect of Muay Thai is in its ability to utilize it’s powerful kicks within hand striking distance without losing speed or power. This is what primarily makes the martial art distinct from other kickboxing martial arts. However, that doesn’t mean these other martial arts like savate don’t come with their own advantages.

Krav Maga’s distinct technique is called “bursting” which is when you strike with two hands instead of one. The drawback being, of course, that you give up all defense. This fits Krav Maga and Israel’s hyper-aggressive military combat doctrine. However, Krav Maga isn’t the only martial art to strike with two hands simultaneously.

3) The environment and enemy are what make us special.

Martial arts aren’t developed in isolation, they’re developed via consistent challenge and like any weapon are meant to deal with very specific threats within an environment.

Karate being the martial art of preemptive interruption doesn’t sound all that impressive in a modern sense, until you remember it was developed in large part to deal with the Samurai. The defensive blocks of karate can preemptively halt a samurai from drawing his katana via wrist to wrist. If you can’t get to your weapon then you can’t fight, then you followup with a strike. Not unlike grabbing the wrist of someone about to draw their pistol and shoving down.

Krav Maga’s bursting is usually what comes to mind first about Krav Maga being distinct, but another major part of what makes Krav Maga unique is the way its techniques have been adapted from other martial arts to suit fighting in tight urban environments like a marketplace in Jerusalem. The chambers on all Krav Maga techniques are compressed, allowing a practitioner to use techniques like the sidekick in very tight urban quarters which you’d normally need more space for.

Or Sambo’s combination where they grab an incoming fist and then perform the sidekick. Ensuring the enemy has nowhere to go, and takes the full force of the blow. (This isn’t unique to the Russians either.)

This is about adaptation. Techniques are developed to deal with something, to create some advantage over their enemy, and to exploit an opening in general combat. How a martial art uses their elbows or develops those techniques in conjunction with others in the repertoire might make it distinctive whereas just using elbows will make it like everyone else. I do mean everyone too.

Intent, need, and environment are what creates distinct individual approaches. A martial art developed on the docks of France is going to be different than one created in the jungles of the Philippines. A martial art developed for military use is going to be different than one created for law enforcement, self-defense, or spiritual enlightenment.

However, if you don’t understand any of the above, you’ll find yourself running face first into a wall. As a beginner, you will invariably come up with ideas that sound unique to you but silly to anyone who understands the subject.  This is part of being a beginner, and its a drawback you won’t be able to escape without putting your nose to the grindstone.

4) Approach mingles with character and this is Important.

Another martial art that makes heavy use of elbows and knees is Judo. This is because elbows and knees work best in tight quarters and at close range, but what Judo uses their elbows for differs from Muay Thai. Again, how one uses a body part is the distinctive aspect rather than using them at all. However, what these martial arts share is their close quarters approach to violence or, in the case of Judo, the ground fighting which is what lends them to making heavy use of their elbows both as attacks and as joint breaks.

How your character fights is an important representation of their personality because this is how they’ve decided to solve their problem with violence. There are an array of options, but this is their preference. In this case, you’ve got a character who likes to fight up close and personal. They’re going to be specializing in either boxing, throws, ground-fighting, or a combination of the above. They’re visceral, and are probably pretty free with the headbutts.

There’s no separation between the martial art and the character except in how they use it, and with a distinctive martial art you’re beholden to the combat approach because this is the direction the character has purposefully developed for themselves.

5) Every style comes with its drawbacks.

No martial style is invincible, every approach has its drawbacks. Like I said earlier, the draw back of the elbow is you must be very close to use it and for all its power it is exceedingly limited in use. The same goes for the knee, even the flying knee. Both can be blocked, and blocked fairly easily if the opponent sees them coming. Outside a surprise attack (like being grabbed from behind and driving the elbow into the stomach), both rely on strong setups from the martial artist utilizing other techniques.

A character who specializes at fighting in close quarters means they must get into close quarters, which is easier said than done and much harder against another martial artist who specializes in keeping their opponents at specific ranges.

6) You need to be more than a one hit wonder.

Martial arts are collections of techniques which work together in order to achieve specific goals.

7) Learn How Things Work before you start breaking them.

The biggest mistake a writer can make is trying to skip the end before they’ve got their feet on the ground for the beginning. If you don’t know how something works then do research to learn, there are a lot of materials easily available including fictional where they got it right.

A great example of magical martial arts setting building is still, in my opinion, Naruto. (Yu Yu Hakusho is a great example of how to tie your character’s emotional development to their combat progression.) Naruto goes out of its way early to explain how the setting rules function in terms of the Jutsu by breaking them into three categories so the audience better understands specialties, by locking down the hand signs used for casting to differentiate those techniques from the special kekkai genkai, and explaining the use of energy. Sometimes, Naruto can be exposition heavy but it is very clear on its rules even when it proceeds to break them.

You’ll notice like with all great shounen anime the breakdown covers where the inspiration for the technique came from, its background, history, why it got made, and what it is used for. Heroes often use a set collection of techniques that they build off of their special one in new ways for new situations. Spirit gun, spirit palm, and spirit bomb are all slightly different versions of the same technique. Your character being able to summon one skeleton and working their way up to three skeletons is both a progression and possibly the creation of a new technique.

Another good example is the lightsaber forms from Star Wars, they’re silly in some cases, but they’ll point out the specific uses for the form and what it is known for. The lightsaber form focused on the deflection of foreign projectiles is different from the one that’s highly acrobatic and aggressive.

This will help you in understanding what “distinct” means in terms of martial arts when you’re ready to go back to your character’s own style, and ultimately aid you in creating one that truly is distinct without seeming silly.

8) Focus on World Building first.

It can be tempting to figure out how your character is special and different when you first start out, but unless you know how combat works within your setting it will end poorly. You’ve got to figure out the general rules first, then accept other major characters will have specialties too, and if your character’s fighting style is well known enough to be recognized then it must be for a reason. By hammering out your setting, the environment, and the dangers, you’ll have an easier to time figuring out how combat works within it.

While violence is often active, it is primarily reactive and reliant on the world it exists in. Your character is using violence to solve their problems, this means figuring out what the problem is, how they got there, and the systems others before them used.

Going over the works of martial arts masters will help you in understanding what the general expectations are for martial artists, which will also help you write the general combat in your setting better.

Start at the beginning and work your way up.


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Q&A: Basket Hilt Broadsword

so silly question(s), time. Was/is there any account of people wearing gauntlets while wielding a basket/complex hilted sword? I feel like most of the appeal of the basket hilt is how it functionally replaces arm protecting armor when expecting a fight, and if not expecting a fight isn’t so much to lug around. but then are people Doing (insert type of sword with a simple cross guard)Sword Wrong because they aren’t wearing the appropriate armor? it’s probably more complex than that ….

Matt Easton will explain the purpose of the basket-hilt broadsword better than I can. You can also look at the Wikipedia entry.

The short answer is that the basket-hilt broadsword is from the Napoleonic era and was primarily a military sword rather than a sword that saw use in civilian life like a rapier or a smallsword. So, yes, it would have been used with leather gauntlets and the armor of the period. (Like the Cuirassier.) More hand protection for the grip does not equate a replacement for armor. It just means more hand protection. Hand protection is important because the hand is one of the first (and best) targets to strike for with a sword, if they don’t have a hand or if the hand is injured then your opponent can’t use their sword. (The fact that the basket hilt exists at all should tell you how important that hand protection is to a soldier.)

Most people who’ve never engaged in any sort of martial training, martial arts tend to think the center is the first place one strikes toward because (obviously) that’s obviously the quickest way to end the fight. Ranged weapons aim for center mass, but in a duel, in hand to hand, or with an armored warrior on the battlefield, that center is going to be the most well-defended part of the body. Your extremities like your arms, your legs, and your hands are much easier to reach, and just as necessary to your opponent putting up a defense or retaliating. They’re also more likely to be open to attack, so you go after those first.

However, for every advantage given to a weapon, there is a disadvantage. The problem with the basket-hilt in civilian life is, as Easton points out in his video, the sword is potentially difficult to draw quickly and provides more opportunity for fumbling than a sword with a less complex hilt. The more protection you give a sword’s hilt then the fewer options you have to just grab and go. The same rules you’ve applied to your enemy also apply to you, the wielder. For the civilian, who has different priorities from a soldier, this is an issue.

A civilian is going to be going around their daily life with their sword sheathed, and need to draw quickly in case of emergency. They’re going to face surprise violence from unexpected places. The soldier will likely already have their sword drawn when the battle starts. The civilian needs speed over additional protection, where the soldier needs that extra defense. You see this concept painted most clearly with the Old West gun duels, but the general answer is: he who draws first wins. Your sword has a lot of hand protection, but that won’t help you much if you can’t get it out of its sheathe. (The same is true in the knife versus gun debate. The gun has range over the knife, but that doesn’t matter if the knife is out and close enough to strike while the gun is still holstered. The fight will be over before the one with the gun has time to draw.) The civilian, for the most part, doesn’t have extra armor to buy them time. They need to be quick, and they need to grip the hilt from any potential angle. In that scenario, the basket-hilt hinders more than helps.

Just because one person adds more armor doesn’t mean they’re doing that so they can take away from somewhere else. The soldier is still going to wear their gauntlets and gloves to protect their hands, they’re just reducing the chance of being struck further with the basket-hilt or quillions on the cross-guard. After all, the basket-hilt only protects the hand and not the rest of their arm. Someone sticks you in the bicep or triceps, good luck using your arm. After all, if you can’t use your muscles then there’s no way to move the arm, or you’ll be doing so while in extreme pain.


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Q&A: Joint Breaks

Is it actually possible to mess up someone’s leg by kicking them in the side of the knee, which seems to be really common in movies? If not, what would be a plausible, effective way to attack/disable the legs?

Yes, absolutely. Any joint you have that you enjoy using that bends in one direction, applying pressure in any other direction until it pops is going to be unhappiness. This is what joint locks do, and joint breaks are simply applying enough pressure or force to break it. It’s about leverage, not strength. Anyone can do it.

The common kicks for this are the sidekick and the shin kick, but you can also break the knee with your elbow, your hand, or a car door. Understand though, once the joint is blown, it takes major surgery to get it back if you can get the joint functioning again at all.

In a real life context, whatever you need to stay alive and escape. They can’t chase you without functioning legs. In a fictional context, you probably want to take this reality into account. This is a joint break, and the knee is a necessary part of a human being’s ability to move while on their feet. Blown joints are usually permanent, or have a long recovery time with modern medicine.

You’re going to want to take that into account according to your character’s own views on violence and it’s uses. The thematic aspects of violence in fiction are as important as the practical applications. Your character’s morals mesh with their approaches, regardless of what is or isn’t best or smart. Everything your character does says something about them, and if your character is one of the peaceable “Everyone must live!” types then a joint break in application creates implied hypocrisy and dysfunction. Catherine of Russia didn’t kill her political rivals, but she locked them up in prison, had them tortured, and this included children. So… what is benevolence? Breaking someone’s arm forever isn’t murder, but it’s also not a nice thing to do and weighing the morality of your character’s actions is something you should consider. One might consider locking a child up in a tower, away from their parents and the sun, refusing to allow them to learn to speak, read, or write, better than killing them. (That was the ultimate fate of Ivan VI.) Some might not.

The question is not just does the approach work, but does the action and its consequences fit with the character’s stance? The second is sometimes much harder to answer than the first, but, for me, the real problem is character actions not matching mentality and intention. Remember, “Does it work?” should always be followed with “Should this character do it?”


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Q&A: Where there’s two guards, there’s ten.

I’m trying to write a hand-to-hand fight scene with an injured, yet desperate resistance fighter (who has had training) and two guards who are woefully under prepared to fight him. How am I best to approach this? I figure wrangling a weapon off one of them quickly is better than trying to have a drawn out combat scene?

The part of the question that’s missing is what the injury is, what the situation is, where the resistance fighter is, and what the resistance fighter’s goals are. What I’m telling you is without those pieces I can’t diagnose your fight scene, but the tldr for group fights is don’t if you can avoid it. Just because a character can fight doesn’t mean they should, and that is a practical statement.

When you’re writing a story about a resistance, never forget that they are in a hostile environment where everything is a danger to them, and you should approach every engagement violent or not as a cost comparison. The short version is that two on one is difficult to deal with for anyone, regardless of training. It will be almost impossible when injured because if you’ve no ability to take them out at once (like with weapons) you can only lock up one person at a time. This means number two is always free to move. Guards travel in pairs for a reason. The reason is two on one kills. Where there are two guards, there’s always more. Violence is noisy, violence draws attention. Violence takes time, time this character probably doesn’t have to spare. Now, all these things are fake in a fictional context, which is why it’s up to you as the writer to consider them and the greater narrative consequences. For a resistance fighter, there are always consequences intended and unintended for every act they engage in and every life they take.

For a resistance fighter, guards are the hornets. The problem with hornets is one on their own is mostly just annoying, but you never know when you’re going to run face first into the nest. Unlike hornets, human guards can call their friends.

There is a difference between an insurgent and a revolutionary in terms of training. Insurgents often have military backing and are filled with ex-members of the fallen government military versus the revolutionary where its more shaky. The training itself is less important in considering what they’re able to do in an action sense because regardless of desperation, unnecessary violence in an unwinnable scenario when other potential options are available spells death for the resistance fighter.

When you’re working with a resistance fighter, the resistance part is more important than the fighter part. These are not people with a very large margin for error, and who need to be incredibly good at threat assessment in regard to their greater goals. The greater goal is what’s most important to them, their priority, their mission, they have limited resources and that means they have to make compromises. For the resistance fighter, violence itself draws attention. Attention is bad.

Think about this, if he does manage to fight these two and kill them then whatever kills he makes will be taken out on the civilian population. If he doesn’t kill them, and they remember his face then he’s done as a resistance fighter. Again, attention is bad. Attention brings notoriety. In a hostile state, the consequences are many and they hit the innocent population hardest.

My point is this: your character is not making decisions on what he can do or can’t do, not in what’s morally right or wrong, if he wants to survive in a resistance then he’s making decisions based on risk.

Unless there’s a very good reason for it, (we’re talking he needs these two, specifically these two dead, to move people through their post) then he has no reason to fight them at all because he’s in no position to do so. Fighting puts him and, more importantly, his mission in more risk than not fighting does; especially if these two are unlikely to realize he’s a member of the resistance. 9/10 a resistance fighter is going to be talking their way out of trouble. Trouble attracts guards, sure, but violence attracts more guards and there are always more guards. Discovery risks his safety, risks capture, capture risks the safety of his cell, risks their plans, and risks the resistance itself.

Resistance fighters are the ones who run when their friends get captured, the ones who stand by and do nothing if they’re not at risk of being outed. They wait. They strike later, though usually not to recover their friends. Well, the smart ones do. The stupid ones try. They either get gunned down or captured because hot blood and hot heads get murdered in the streets by the gestapo. There are always more of them than there are you in a resistance, and violence attracts attention. The wrong kind of attention in the wrong place means death or capture, prison, interrogation, torture, and then the firing squad. The consequences for failure are high, not just for the single resistance fighter but for everyone they know, everyone they love, and for the very movement they’re fighting for.

Your character’s very existence hangs on that thread, their actions turn on the threat of discovery, their behavior on the axis of what their missions need done in order to succeed.

He doesn’t have the luxury to kill two guards when they’re standing in his way, because two guards mean there are ten more waiting around the corner. Battle runs the risk of summoning them. Even if he winds, the two dead bodies mean those bodies will eventually be discovered, the townsfolk endure search and seizure, and the city turned upside down as the district commander hunts this character like the rat he is. They may not catch him, but they will find sympathizers among the citizens, possibly friends, and, worse, whatever other resistance cell is working in the area. Someone will be made to pay even if the character himself is not the recipient of the punishment.

If you hadn’t thought of two dead guards being the catalyst for everyone in your character’s life suddenly becoming miserable, more men stationed at every entry and exit point, a ramping up of punishment, more sympathizers dragged off the streets and thrown into detention camps or worse, or a specialist being brought in then you probably should.

Your thinking about a fight, and we’ll get to why fighting these two is a bad idea just upfront in a moment, but for a resistance fighter consequences will spiral out from every person they kill whether they survive or not. These crackdowns can work to their advantage in terms of recruitment, but they will make their immediate life much more difficult. The costs versus loss are high for members of a resistance. For every piece your character and his friends take, the enemy will take five of theirs. He is in a rigged game where his own lack of resources will crush him unless the resistance can convince the populace at large to rise up. That is how a resistance actually wins in the real world, you know. If they can’t get the citizens behind them or receive aid from an outside power or train up an army on foreign soil, they’re doomed.

I will say it now, training is meaningless if you don’t know what it means and I can tell you right now that I don’t know what that means either because resistance fighters either come in with a background like soldier, special ops, my daddy taught me how to use a gun, or they get a crash course and are sent into the fray. If someone has set up training camps, then the situation has upgraded to guerilla warfare which is an entirely different scenario from member of the resistance.  So, what training does he have? From where did it come from? Who taught him? What did he learn how to do? Unless they’re ex-covert ops from the military like the Maquis, resistance fighters learn on the job.

Even then, training just means your character is better prepared than another character to engage in violence. It doesn’t mean they have a free pass. They need to be able to assess the threat and make decisions based on their overall needs or goals. Training is supposed to give you a better chance at threat assessment, and that is the skill by which a resistance fighter lives or dies.

Resistance fighters don’t fight in the conventional sense. This is the most important fact to know about them. The fighter part is misleading because what they are actually doing is engaging in sabotage, performing strikes on high priority targets, or blowing things up.  They can’t afford to fight the way other character types do, they can’t afford to leave a trail of bodies behind them, and they need to move quickly in service of their goals. Every battle they engage in is threat of discovery whether they win or not, if these guards are not a direct threat to them/their goal then the best thing to do is walk by them or let them continue on unawares.

There is one resistance fighter, but there are always more guards. There are these two, then there are their ten buddies somewhere nearby, behind those ten there’s fifty more, then there’s the prison warden, the district commander, and whoever else is up the chain of command. Every body will lead someone back to someone who leads to someone else, and a messy solution to your character’s goal can lead to twenty or more innocent people winding up in prison. Or dead. Which won’t go over well with the people they’re trying to save, if a resistance fighter cannot keep the support of the populace then they are dead. If you haven’t considered how their enemy will respond to their successes, then it is time to start.

Two people are a lot to deal with even for someone who is trained, even when those two people aren’t trained or barely trained, they would be a challenge even if he wasn’t injured. They are an even greater challenge armed and, considering he is without a weapon, the odds are not in his favor. Worst of all, if he can’t kill them quickly, then the fight will slow him down to the point where he may be caught by whomever injured him in the first place.

So, there are times in fiction when fighting is absolutely the 100% wrong choice or at the very least a bad one. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but the guards are guards for a reason. They’re paired together for a reason. They work together. He wrests a weapon away from one of them, but that gives the other time to respond. He doesn’t kill the guard he took the weapon from, that still leaves two guards and one of the guards still has a weapon.

This is why most places will have their guards or work in twos. Against a single attacker, they have the advantage. One will cover what the other misses, and the other will strike when the opponent is locked up. On the sliding scale, your character’s advantage will quickly transition to their advantage.

Time is on their side, not on his.

Besides that, he’s injured. Injuries could mean blood loss, especially if the wound is still open, that means blood will be pumping out of the holes in his body. Violence is a frenetic activity, the heart starts beating faster which in turn starts pumping more blood through the body to deliver oxygen to the muscles. When there are holes in the body, this means more blood exits through the holes. This means high frenetic activity could potentially kill him through a bleed out rather than being murdered by the guards. Or, at the very least, make him woozy, which will lead to him being  murdered by the guards.

Again, time is not on his side.

Threat assessment.

If he can hide his injury, pretend he’s someone else, and talk his way past them then that is actually the best choice. If he’s escaping a prison and he didn’t steal a guard uniform in order to avoid fights, then he is a very dead resistance fighter. If there are guns involved in this scenario then he is in some real deep shit.

Don’t let the movies lie to you, two on one is the most dangerous situation a person can find themselves in. The only worst being three and up. The trick to showing your character is good at fighting is sometimes knowing when not to fight. Wits are more important than fists. This is the moment in the resistance fighter’s life where he tries to find a way past them if possible that involves no violence, goes around them, holes up to tend his wounds, and tries to escape the city by hiding in a hay cart until he can regroup with his friends. He needs his friends but, when it comes to getting away, he’s on his own.

On top of everything else, group fight scenes are difficult to write because a lot of people will be moving at the same time. We have one injured man versus two who also have weapons, the injured man will be limited in his movements depending on his injury, that injury will become a target and exploited by his opponents. His opponents have a combined eight limbs, he has four and he can’t use all of them. His opponents have weapons. He has surprise, but surprise only lets him take one of them. The other is still free. After that, surprise is gone. Guns are not just dangerous, they’re loud and bound to summon assistance, so let’s hope they’re not here. Depending on his circumstances, he could attempt to take one hostage but there’s a lot of risk involved in that, it also assumes he could hold them with his injury. Even if he manages to take the weapon away from one, the other one will still have a weapon, and the opportunity to use it while he’s doing the wresting. The two of them part actually negates the surprise part, that’s why they travel in pairs.

If he had stun guns, if he had two knives, if he had a tool he could use to take both of them out at the same time then maybe. This, however, assumes they’ll both be facing the same direction and not see him approach. His risk is far greater than theirs.

All they need to do is have one of them lock him up long enough for the other guy to call for aid, then they’re back to two on one or in a few minutes five on one. He even if he manages to get a weapon, he’s now fighting all the guards. They don’t have to fight him. Fighting him is not their job, all they have to do is delay him long enough for help to arrive.

This is why a resistance fighter doesn’t behave like this. They don’t have the option of fighting all the guards. They will always be outnumbered and outgunned. He should have this information internalized. It doesn’t matter how much training he has because all it takes is one moron with a good angle and he’s dead. The more enemies there are, the more likely those enemies are to have the opportunity for a good angle. The more desperate he is then the more likely he is to avoid combat. He cannot afford to fight. If he’s on an assassination mission, he’s still going to try to get past the guards without fighting them. Why? It’s the smart play for all the same reasons above. The person he’s here to kill is the only one that matters, and if he dies before he reaches them then the whole situation was for naught. The more people he kills on the way to them then the more likely his target is to disappear. The more time he wastes on violence then the more likely the window of opportunity for his actual mission is to disappear.

A resistance fighter lives in a game of cat and mouse, and he is the mouse. Sometimes, he is a mouse with a very large explosion but he is still a mouse. He will run and hide, he will slip through the cracks and disappear. The clever resistance fighter gets past the two guards by pretending to be an injured bystander running for his life, and that these two need to help their friends capture the dangerous fugitive who is in the direction he just came from. He banks on them caring more about their fellow guardsman or getting glory than they will about him. He is the snake who lies still until he strikes.

This is about time and opportunity. I’m not saying your character can’t make a stupid mistake out of desperation. I’m just saying that this is the exact type of situation where a character like him gets caught by the enemy, and the story takes a new turn. If that ends up being the natural outcome, don’t run away from it. Failure is as much opportunity for storytelling as victory. Understanding the stakes is what’s important, and what happens as a result of your character’s actions. I can tell you from the situation you’ve presented to me, fighting these two is a catastrophic mistake for your character. This is not a situation that ends in victory, even if he manages to kill one or both. He’ll waste enough time for whatever injured him to catch up, he’ll draw the wrong kind of attention, and probably get surrounded by more guards.

Sometimes, you let a bad situation play out and see what happens. The simple answer is that while he focuses on his first target, the second guard takes him captive. (If you’re going, “but he’s good at fighting!” then I’ll remind you this is the situation that gets lots of skilled fighters in real life captured. They retreat for a reason.)

In other similar sorts of fiction, this situation results in the resistance/spy character going to ground, trying to find sympathetic contacts, avoiding the guards looking for him, and trying to find alternative routes out of the city.


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